Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, Oil on canvas, 158.8cm x 125.5 cm, circa 1611-12, currently resides in Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.
Gentileschi’s Judith is a powerful and dramatic painting. It convey’s the biblical (Old Testament) story of a Jewish woman (Judith) who infiltrates an enemy camp to slay the Assyrian leader, Holofernes. Beyond this face-value meaning however, is a deeper and much more emotional message; shortly before this painting was created, the artist Artemisia was raped by her teacher and then humiliated in court for being a “loose woman”; the painting is probably a response to that experience. I can personally see the anger that Artemisia must have felt in this painting. Judith is not just brutally slaying Holofernes, she seems to have a sense of justice and strength in her expression. According to critics, some detail of the painting has been lost due to poor restoration, in particular the furrows of concentration in her brow.
This piece is a perfect example of a Baroque era painting, as it not only makes use of several of the techniques whihc become refined at this time, but it also is a great representation of the Counter Restoration set forth by the Council of Trent. Judith makes a great use of the Chiaroscuro technique, in which there is great contrast between light and dark to make the piece more dramatic. As well as this, Judith uses several other Baroque techniques, including realistic figures (which were often painted from life, though I don’t know if this one made use of models), extreme details, and rich colors. The Council of Trent would have prized this piece (though perhaps may have had issues with the extreme brutality of the scene…) for the interpretation of a biblical scene. Ideally, the Council wanted art to convey a sense of drama and realism while communicating a biblical message. Most importantly, art should be easy to understand – certainly Gentileschi remained faithful to these standards as set forth by the Council.
Interestingly, while each of Artmemisia’s paintings convey a biblical scene of some sort, they all feature women. This must be appreciated when one takes into account that the artist was one of the only well-known female artists of the time period, and probably had a strong sense of feminism. Beyond this, all of Artemisia’s paintings are of a highly emotional nature, and many (if not all) of them can be taken into the context of her life. Overall, I really loved looking at her work and felt a lot of respect for her as an artist, especially because she used her creativity as a means of dealing with the difficulties of life. I would highly reccomend purusing the site on Gentileschi if you haven’t already (http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com/index.shtml) in particular taking the “Tour”, for a complete chronological breakdown of her art in relation to her life – it’s very powerful!